04 February 2011

False neutrality

Yesterday the Western media were full of stories about Egypt. Australia might have vanished off the face of the planet (is it still there?) and we wouldn't have known. "Breaking News" strips at the bottom of the screen told us that Queensland was about to be hit by the mother of all cyclones, but all they showed were repeats of the same footage of protests in the streets and squares of Cairo.

I had just read one of the most lucid and clear eye-witness accounts of what was happening in Egypt at Robert Fisk: Secular and devout. Rich and poor. They marched together with one goal - The Independent:
It was a victory parade – without the victory. They came in their hundreds of thousands, joyful, singing, praying, a great packed mass of Egypt, suburb by suburb, village by village, waiting patiently to pass through the 'people's security' checkpoints, draped in the Egyptian flag of red, white and black, its governess eagle a bright gold in the sunlight. Were there a million? Perhaps. Across the country there certainly were. It was, we all agreed, the largest political demonstration in the history of Egypt, the latest heave to rid this country of its least-loved dictator. Its only flaw was that by dusk – and who knew what the night would bring – Hosni Mubarak was still calling himself 'President' of Egypt.

Then I watched a report on Sky News, with an entirely different description. It described "clashes" between "pro-Mubarak" and "anti-Mubarak" factions, and "violence" in these "clashes". One report described protests against an oppressive dictator, while the other described a divided society, on the brink of civil war. And it became clear that the media's attempts to be "fair" and "impartial" and to "give both sides of the story" actually distort the news.

I know I've succumbed to that temptation myself. When I was young the former Belgian Congo became independent, and erupted into civil war, which has continued sporadically ever since, for fifty years, and is still going on today. Reports in the local newspapers (no TV in those days) were less than informative. They reported "clashes" and "violence" and gave the impression that the people there just liked fighting. Only much later did I realise that this false neutrality was actually designed to obscure the real causes of the conflict.

Twenty years ago (was it as long ago as that?) we had the wars of the Yugoslav succession. There was a tendency for people remote from the conflict to make the same shallow judgements -- "those people are always fighting". That view even affects the English language -- "Balkanisation" is a pejorative word, suggesting instability and fragmentation. It was used to describe the creation of "homelands" in South Africa under the apartheid policy, and in the 1990s we saw Balkanisation actually taking place in the Balkans.

At an Orthodox mission conference in Athens in 2000 Dr Tarek Mitri of the Patriarchate of Antioch spoke on Orthodoxy and other religions. He said that the many conspiratorial interpretations of the role of other religions blur the role of Orthodoxy. These interpretations were based on the conservatism of survival, and aggravated fears of seeing Orthodoxy marginalised. Globalisation meant that there was pressure for uniformity. National government structures are less able to make decisions. Orthodoxy and Eastern culture are regarded as archaisms in the West -- there is talk of "ancestral hatred", but it is not "ancestral hatred" that
is the cause of war, it is war that is the cause of "ancestral hatred". If the past does not meet the needs of the present, another past can be constructed. The more people look alike, the more they wish to preserve their differences, and the smaller the differences, the more important they become. We are caught between the voices of homogenisation and those who advocate religion as a marker of nationalism and ethnic identity.

The media that tried to be "neutral" often used the "ancestral hatred" argument -- that Balkan Wars were caused by "ancestral hatred". But most of the Western media did not try to be neutral in that case, though they did try to obscure the fact that much of the violence was fanned by foreign intervention. "Ancestral hatred" was a convenient red herring to promote the cover-up.

And now we come to Egypt. This article discusses some of the ways in which "neutral" reporting can distort the truth, or, as Dr Mitry puts it, construct a new past, even the quite recent past of news reporting.

The nomenclature of a protest | "The people want to bring down the regime":
To describe the attacks on protesters as clashes presumes some sort of ineffable, sectarian sort of sporadic violence, skirmishes on an already named front. What we saw today was a peaceful protest being borne down on by horses and camels, then later thousands of thugs armed with white weapons, rocks, Molotov cocktails and guns. Moreover the thugs had a plan, they came at the square like it was a castle or hilltop to be besieged and overtaken, amassing at all sides of the square and waging simultaneous assaults on people who had been, this whole time, checking their own to ensure there were no weapons in the camp. To describe these military tactics (and paramilitary weaponry) with the same words as the protesters’ attempts to resist the state’s violence shows either ignorance or callousness, or both.

Part of this, of course, arises not from a desire to be objective and to report factually, but because conflict sells newspapers. If every difference of opinion can be magnified into a "clash", then the media swarm in, like flies to a rotting corpse, with the attitude of "Let's you and him fight". So a polite difference of opinion can be presented in the media as an angry confrontation. If it doesn't actually take the form of such a cofrontation, then the media try to milk it for all it's worth by describing it as a "looming" clash (does anyone outside the media use "loom" as a verb?) But as long as they present both sides in a "balanced" way, the media can wash their hands in innocence.

This is not to say that the media sparked off the present situation in Egypt, but rather that their "balanced" reporting of it can actually lead to a very unbalanced picture.


seev said...

Thanks, Steve. Excellent post. One of our local TV stations in Portland, Maine, angered me last evening with their "clashes between opposing sides" and even "some feel Hosni Mubarak's leaving now would lead to chaos".

John said...

Great post, Steve. I particularly like the line about wars causing "ancestral hatred," rather than the other way around. Your comments of how the various Balkan wars have come to be portrayed is insightful, as well. This fortifies the fall-back position of the uninformed American for both the Balkans and the Middle East--"well, those people have been fighting each other for hundreds (thousands) of years," etc. I too was discomforted upon hearing the provocations of pro-Mubarak forces described with moral equivalency to the demonstrators. And Robert Fisk is a great favorite of mine--I go to him first when gathering information on the Middle East.


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